Taylor Heinicke, Commanders shock unbeaten Eagles

How

PHILADELPHIA — Taylor Heinicke said he wasn’t paying attention. He said he didn’t give much thought to Monday night potentially being his last start, should Carson Wentz return to the active roster from his broken finger ready to go.

His concern, he said last week, was won. And to win a game against the NFL’s last undefeated team, he had to help his Commanders convert on third down, sustain drives and be consistent — all things Washington typically has failed to accomplish.

At the time, perhaps his comments felt like standard football speak — say the right thing, no matter how obvious, and hope and pray the result comes somewhere close. In hindsight, the quarterback’s hopes—and his play—were shrewd, and Monday’s game may have all but guaranteed him a chance to remain Washington’s starter, no matter Wentz’s health.

With a heavy reliance on the running game and efficient play on third down, Heinicke’s Commanders did what no other team has this season: They upset the Philadelphia Eagles, 32-21 — on their home turf, no less.

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Calling it the “probably the biggest win of my career,” Heinicke finished 17 for 29 for 211 yards, no touchdowns and an interception for a 66.9 passer rating. Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts went 17 for 26 for 175 yards, two touchdowns and an interception for a 94.2 rating.

For the first time this season, the Commanders’ offense appeared consistent and methodical as it notched four first-half scoring drives, three of which spanned 13, 12 and 16 plays. Washington (5-5) scored 13 points in the second quarter while holding the Eagles scoreless, a feat unto itself; Philadelphia (8-1) entered the game having scored nearly 60 percent of its points in the second quarter and had yet to be shut out.

“We found that one of the best ways to slow Jalen Hurts down is to keep him off the field,” Commanders Coach Ron Rivera said.

But its first-half dominance didn’t stop there. Washington outgained Philadelphia 235 yards to 101, converted 75 percent of its third downs (9 of 12) and ran 51 plays to the Eagles’ 19. Washington’s 17-minute, 38-second time-of-possession edge in the first half was the largest in franchise history, and it was capped by a 58-yard field goal (the longest of Joey Slye’s career) that built a 20-14 lead and prompted a round of boos from Eagles fans.

For the game, Washington ran 81 plays for 330 yards, including 152 on the ground, and converted 57 percent of its third downs (12 for 21). It was everything no one expected and more.

“In a situation like this, I’ve always thought that we’ve got the kind of guys in that locker room that can do things, and we’re starting to see it come together,” said Rivera, who choked up in the locker room afterward.

Two weeks earlier, his mother, Delores, died after a battle with lung cancer. Amid all of the organization’s off-the-field drama, Rivera stressed to his team the importance of staying focused.

During the week, he told his players to let him handle the unimportant stuff. After the game, he fought back tears while telling his players his mother “would’ve been proud.”

“It means a lot because the guys were able to stay focused on what’s important,” he said. “… The hard work is starting to pay off.”

After their decisive first half, the Commanders opened the second by forcing a three-and-out and then embarking on another long drive, this one spanning 14 plays and more than eight minutes before Slye knocked in a 32-yard field goal to expand Washington’s lead to 23-14.

The Commanders not only defied their own play over the past two-plus seasons under Rivera — they showed control and attention to detail that had eluded them in most critical situations. With Heinicke at the helm, Washington plays on the edge, typically one throw away from catastrophe or glory.

Last week against Minnesota, his deep pass over the middle was intercepted, costing the Commanders dearly as their three-game winning streak ended. This week, his heady plays were difference-makers.

In the second quarter, center Tyler Larsen felt a snap over Heinicke’s head, but the quarterback retreated, recovered and threw it out of bounds — past the line of scrimmage — to cost Washington only a down instead of a significant chunk of yardage or worse.

Then in the fourth, during Washington’s final drive, Heinicke scrambled away from pressure and took a knee on third down, drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty on the Eagles’ Brandon Graham as Graham barreled into him.

“That last play, we called a slant for Terry [McLaurin], and it was one of those things where if he’s open, give it to him, and if not, take a sack,” Heinicke said. “I was not going to throw it unless he was wide open. When I took that knee and I saw them coming at me, I was hoping they’d come at me and, sure enough, they did. It was a mistake on their end but, hey, we’ll live with it.”

The Eagles’ mistake also exposed Heinicke’s growth.

“Very much so,” Rivera said. “It’s one of the things he’s learning, to take what’s given.”

Throughout Monday’s game, the Commanders were mostly sound and, when they made a mistake, they fought back to make up for it. They committed to the run early and stuck with it (Brian Robinson Jr. finished with 86 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries), opening up chunk plays in the passing game. They moved the ball and ate up clock, converted critical third downs and, for the most part, stayed out of their own way.

But the game’s first two minutes suggested the onset of another first-half disaster. Armani Rogers was flagged for holding on the opening kickoff, resulting in the loss of 33 yards on a long return by Antonio Gibson. Washington then went three-and-out; after a roughing-the-punter penalty gave Washington the ball back, Heinicke was strip-sacked. Philadelphia recovered the ball and needed only three plays to find the end zone on Hurts’s one-yard run.

The Commanders responded with their first long drive, using 10 run plays sandwiched around two big passes — a 26-yard reception by McLaurin on third and two and a 14-yard catch by Jahan Dotson on second and 11. Gibson capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown run.

This offense was entirely unlike the one Washington had shown in weeks prior.

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A few mistakes would follow. Cornerback Benjamin St-Juste was called for pass interference on a deep pass by Hurts, and though the call appeared questionable, it nevertheless led to another Eagles score, this time a six-yard pass to tight end Dallas Goedert to put Philadelphia up 14- 7.

Washington then was flagged for delay of game on fourth and one, prompting offensive coordinator Scott Turner to throw his hands up in the booth and the offense to settle for a 44-yard Slye field goal.

But after an interception by safety Darrick Forrest and two more Washington scores before the end of the half — a one-yard touchdown run by Robinson and that 58-yard field goal by Slye — the Commanders had a 20-14 halftime lead. It was the first time in more than two years that Washington scored at least 20 points in the opening half.

The Eagles seemed to bounce back after Javon Hargrave’s third-quarter sack of Heinicke at Philadelphia’s 14-yard line. The takedown forced Washington to settle for a 32-yard field goal that expanded its lead to nine. Philadelphia responded with a long drive, using 11 plays as Hurts threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith to make it 23-21.

A turnover was not in Washington’s plans, but given the circumstances, it wasn’t an egregious mistake. It was third and three at Philadelphia’s 43 when Heinicke launched a missile up the left sideline toward McLaurin that hung in the air just long enough for safety CJ Gardner-Johnson to go up and grab it.

Heinicke had said in the past that if he has a 50-50 chance with McLaurin, he plans to give the star receiver that shot, and his decision to do so here seemed wise, even though the outcome was poor. Had the throw sailed a bit farther, the Commanders would’ve been steps from the goal line. Instead it was picked off, a turnover that ultimately had little consequence.

“He’s been great since he’s gotten here — honestly,” McLaurin said. “… He really plays like every play is his last. He plays with no fear, man.”

On the subsequent possession, defensive tackle John Ridgeway forced a fumble on a short pass to Goedert that linebacker Jamin Davis recovered and returned for a touchdown. The score was overturned on review — but the turnover stood and set up another chance for Washington to expand its lead. Slye, having the game of his life, knocked in a 55-yard field goal with 7:33 remaining to give Washington a 26-21 edge.

But no Commanders game, especially with Heinicke at quarterback, can end without late-game theatrics. This time it came courtesy of the defense.

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Hurts launched a 50-yard pass to Quez Watkins, who stumbled to the turf, got back up and then lost control of the ball when St-Just pummeled him. Forrest recovered the fumble to end what could’ve been a game-winning drive.

“We definitely came into this game knowing that nobody was believing in us,” Forrest said. “… We came in ready to fight.”

With his team in position to seal the win in the final minutes, Dotson was flagged for offensive pass interference, negating a 21-yard catch by Curtis Samuel on third down. But after the punt, defensive end Montez Sweat threw another Philadelphia drive with a sack on third down.

Heinicke then stuck to the plan: convert third down, sustain the drive.

On third and seven with McLaurin tightly covered, Heinicke scrambled before taking a knee and drawing the penalty on Graham that earned the Commanders a new set of downs and a chance to bleed the clock.

When Philadelphia finally got the ball back, Casey Toohill recovered an errant desperation lateral for a touchdown on the game’s final play, allowing Washington to secure the win and Heinicke to waltz to the tunnel in celebration.

“We felt if we could control the line of scrimmage and run the ball, we could slow things down, and that’s what we were able to do,” Rivera said before leaning into it. “I mean, the dude is a dynamic quarterback and he’s done a heck of a job — and Jalen’s not a bad guy, either.”

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